Road safety: Introducing the air bag
With nearly 20 million cars and trucks on our roads, automobiles have become a fact of life for Canadians. But our reliance on them comes at a cost. Over the past 50 years nearly 200,000 Canadians have died in traffic accidents — more than were killed in both world wars combined. In addition, despite vastly improved safety measures automobile accidents continue to be a major cause of death of younger Canadians. CBC Archives takes a look at the long, slow road to improved traffic safety.
This CBC Television clips ponders the merits of the new technology and suggests that "dollars alone may deflate the air bag before it hits the market."
• The chief example of "passive restraint" systems, air bags are triggered by sensors which activate in cases of sudden deceleration. The sensors set off a bullet-like device that sparks nitrogen gas. The gas expands rapidly, inflating the cushioned air bag in less than one twentieth of a second.
• Front air bags are designed to protect the driver or passenger in the case of front-end crashes. They are not designed to inflate in rear-end collisions, side impacts or rollovers.
• In this clip, reporter Harry Brown talks about the potential dangers of the air bag's explosive force on someone wearing glasses or smoking a pipe. Though his question seems trivial, in 2004 Transport Canada addressed the issue of air bag injuries.
• The federal agency said that in order to be effective "air bags must inflate so quickly, and with such force, that they can cause injuries." While most injuries were minor, air bags were linked to serious injuries, like broken arms and deaths.
• Transport Canada warned that children and smaller adults are more vulnerable to air bag related injuries. For this reason, it recommended that children under the age of 12 be seated in the rear of a vehicle at all times.
• Air bag technology has existed since the 1960s. Originally referred to as "air cushions" or "cocooning safety systems," prototypes of the device were completed as early as 1965.
• Despite positive test results, the auto industry chose to install less-expensive safety options over the years, such as shatterproof windshields, safety door latches, lap belts and padded dashboards.
• A 1974 study by the U.S. Highway Safety Administration estimated that 16,000 lives could be saved annually if cars were equipped with air bags or automatic seatbelts. At the time, air bags were available only in General Motors luxury lines which included Cadillac, Buick and Oldsmobile.
• In 1977, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced that air bags or automatic belts would be introduced beginning in 1982 models, in all luxury or full-sized cars. The devices would become standard in all mid-class and compact vehicles in 1983, and all sub-compact models the following year.
• The decision was a response to low levels of rider compliance with mandatory seat belt laws which rolled out across North America starting in the early 1970s.
• After several years of legal wrangling, in 1974 Ontario became the first province in Canada to make seatbelt use mandatory. Several U.S. states and provinces followed suit in 1975.
• Prior to 1974, lap seatbelts were standard issue in cars and trucks but there was no law prescribing that passengers wear them.
• Despite the legislation, by 1980 less than half of Canadians wore their seat belts and more than 5,600 people died annually as a result of auto accidents. Similar statistics in the United States were given as the reasons behind pushing ahead with air bags.
• According to a 1998 Transport Canada study, air bags saved about 152 driver and front seat passenger lives over the previous eight-year period. The reduction of injuries was estimated to be much higher. The same study showed seatbelts were responsible for saving about 8,600 driver and front seat passengers in the same time period.
• The auto industry is in the process of developing "smart" air bags that are capable of two or more activation levels: one for passengers wearing seat belts, and a stronger one for unbelted passengers.
• Future technologies will allow for sensors that gauge how close a person is to the air bag before it goes off, with the hope that the intensity of the deployment can be adjusted to avoid injuries.
For more on the air bag, see the television clip Road Safety: The search for a smarter air bag.
Program: Take 30
Broadcast Date: Jan. 26, 1981
Guest(s): Dennis Atwood, Bryan Cayton
Reporter: Harry Brown
Last updated: August 19, 2013
Page consulted on December 6, 2013
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